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Daniel Lieberman decided to do an informal — and very sneaky — study.
While at an academic conference, he counted how many people took the escalator vs the stairs. In ten minutes, 151 people walked past him and only 11 used the stairs. That’s just 7 percent.
Thing was, this was a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.
And the name of the conference was “Exercise Is Medicine.”
Actually, these results weren’t as bad as you might think — formal studies of the general populace show, on average, only 5% of people take the stairs. We all know exercise is good… but most of us just don’t do it.
According to a 2018 survey by the U.S. government, almost all Americans know that exercise promotes health and think they should exercise, yet 50 percent of adults and 73 percent of high school students report they don’t meet minimal levels of physical activity, and 70 percent of adults report they never exercise in their leisure time.
Over the past 12 months we had a better excuse than usual not to hit the gym. (And if you were sentenced to house arrest in 2020, man, did you luck out.) But now many of us have gained the COVID-19 pounds and our exercise habits are ancient history. What are we supposed to do?
Looking at the cognitive malware that passes for most exercise advice, you quickly realize the health industry has a lot of pre-existing health conditions. We hear so much contradictory stuff, much of it myth or a sales pitch for useless supplements. Who even knows what is true?
Why are we so lazy about exercise? How much do we need? What kind? And how do we get motivated?
We need some real answers, not more pseudoscience from the illusionists pushing fad routines on Instagram carousels. But I’m not a doctor. Heck, I don’t even know the names of the 4 kidneys in the human body. But there is a guy who has done the research…
Daniel Lieberman is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and the author of Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding.
Let’s get to it…
If you feel running on a treadmill is an abomination from the sixth plane of torment, don’t beat yourself up. What you suspected all along is true: treadmills really were designed as torture devices.
Treadmill-like devices were first used by the Romans to turn winches and lift heavy objects, and then modified in 1818 by the Victorian inventor William Cubitt to punish prisoners and prevent idleness. For more than a century, English convicts (among them Oscar Wilde) were condemned to trudge for hours a day on enormous steplike treadmills.
There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t like to hit the gym. Daniel says the idea that we’re wired to want to exercise is a myth. What do you find when you study modern hunter-gatherer tribes?
They spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing. They don’t run around for no reason.
Many things surprised me when I first walked into a Hadza camp mid-morning on a torrid, sunny day in 2013, but I remember being especially struck by how everyone was apparently doing nothing… one of the ways hunter-gatherers survive is by not foolishly squandering scarce calories on unnecessary activity.
Not that they don’t move — they do a lot of moving. But they do it because they have to. How active does this make them compared to us? Hunter-gatherers are about as fit as people who exercise an hour a day.
To put these values into context, hunter-gatherer PALs are about the same as those of factory workers and farmers in the developed world (1.8), and about 15 percent higher than PALs of people with desk jobs in developed countries (1.6). In other words, typical hunter-gatherers are about as physically active as Americans or Europeans who include about an hour of exercise in their daily routine…
Sure, some people enjoy exercise but you’re not broken if you aren’t intrinsically motivated to do it. We didn’t evolve to waste energy being active for no reason. But in the modern world we’ve been really good at getting rid of reasons.
We’re not “lazy” — we’re victims of our own success. Evolution thought we’d always have a reason to move a lot. But now we don’t move and, uh, that’s bad because a lot of important biological stuff is dependent on it.
Back in the 1960’s they did a study where healthy twenty-year-olds did nothing but lay in bed all day for three weeks. Afterward, the subjects’ health metrics didn’t even look like those of twenty-year-olds anymore. They were indistinguishable from forty-year-olds. Three weeks of lying around
watching Netflix seemed to age them two decades in three weeks.
So next the scientists put them on an eight-week exercise regimen. Boom. Their health metrics Benjamin Button’d back to twenty-year-old levels. How did lead researcher Bengt Saltin sum up the results?
“Humans were meant to move.”
We weren’t designed to be active for no reason, but if you don’t want Future-You to be talking trash about Current-You, we gotta move for some reason.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
It’s not natural for us to be sedentary. And a lot of the health negatives we’ve come to accept aren’t natural either…
Daniel says the majority of the health problems we attribute to aging these days are not the direct consequence of more birthdays. They’re due to modern behaviors and lifestyles — just like the bedrest study. He calls them “mismatch diseases” — the result of a mismatch between how we were designed to live vs how we actually do.
Type 2 diabetes? It’s virtually unheard of in hunter-gatherers. But it’s now the fastest growing disease in the modern world, increasing more than sevenfold between 1975 and 2005. Guess what? Exercise reverses insulin resistance.
How about heart attacks? Before World War 2 they weren’t nearly as big an issue. Medical science barely even felt the need to study them. In 1946, researcher Jeremy Morris said you could go to the Royal Society of Medicine library and read all the literature on heart attacks before it was time for tea. But now cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death. How do you prevent heart attacks? Take a guess.
One massive study of nearly ten thousand men found that individuals with good cardiorespiratory fitness had more than a fourfold lower risk for cardiovascular diseases than those with poor fitness, and those who improved their fitness cut their risk in half.
Cancer? An Italian study showed that between 1760 and 1839 less than one percent of people died from cancer. Now it’s one of the most common killers. Again, we can attribute a big part of its increase to lack of exercise.
When the researchers looked at the relationship between varying physical activity levels and cancer rates (controlling for sex, age, smoking, alcohol, and education), they found a clear dose-response relationship. Compared with those who were sedentary, modest exercisers had 13 to 20 percent lower cancer rates, and those who exercised moderately or more had 25 to 30 percent lower cancer rates.
Alzheimer’s? It’s twenty times more common in the West than in the developing world and projected to increase fourfold by 2050. There is no cure and no effective treatments.
Oh wait, there is one…
Exercise is by far the most effective known form of prevention and treatment. Further, the effects are impressive. An analysis of sixteen prospective studies including more than 160,000 individuals found that moderate levels of physical activity lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45 percent.
Okay, enough terror. It should be quite clear that if you’re not exercising you’re playing Russian roulette after five clicks of the trigger. But I don’t want you to throw up your hands and say it’s too late. It’s not. We have bushels full of hope here.
Remember that bedrest study with the twenty-year-olds? Well, 30 years later the researchers got the same group of subjects back to study them again, now as fifty-year-olds. The decades had not been kind. So the researchers put them on a six-month exercise regimen. What happened?
Boom. From a cardiovascular perspective, they pretty much became twenty-year-olds again.
After six months of moderate exercise, the average volunteer’s blood pressure, resting heart rate, and cardiac output returned to his twenty-year-old level.
Once again: “Humans were meant to move.”
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
So there’s hope. We just gotta get moving. But very recently the emphasis hasn’t been on that. A lot of what we’ve been hearing has largely been asking, “Isn’t the problem just too much sitting?”
We’ve all read the scary headlines about the dangers of too much sitting. But guess what? Those healthy hunter-gatherers sit a lot too.
The Hadza, for example, spend about nine “non-ambulatory” hours on a typical day, mostly sitting on the ground with their legs in front of them, but also squatting about two hours a day and kneeling an hour a day. So while nonindustrial people engage in considerably more physical activity than average industrialized and postindustrialized people, they also sit a lot.
And other research shows that marathon runners sit as much as less athletic people. So what’s the deal?
Sitting, by itself, is not gonna kill you. The problems here are caused by weight gain, chronic low grade inflammation and too much sugar and fat floating around in your bloodstream.
And sitting at the office is not the problem. It’s uninterrupted hours of sitting at home that is the real culprit.
One massive fifteen-year-long study of more than ten thousand Danes found no association between time spent sitting at work and heart disease. An even bigger study on sixty-six thousand middle-aged Japanese office workers yielded similar results. Instead, leisure-time sitting best predicts mortality, suggesting that socioeconomic status and exercise habits in mornings, evenings, and weekends have important health effects beyond how much one sits during weekdays at the office.
So what’s the answer? Regular exercise combined with occasionally getting up from the couch.
A multiyear analysis of almost five thousand Americans found that people who broke up their sitting time with frequent short breaks had up to 25 percent less inflammation than those who rarely rose from their chairs despite sitting the same number of hours.
Hunter-gatherers like the Hadza do plenty of sitting, but they also get plenty of exercise. They rarely sit for more than 15 minutes at a time and even while plunked on their duff, they’re usually doing something like digging for tubers — not watching the tube.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, sitting myth busted. Don’t worry, you will never be as lazy as the guy who named the fireplace. But we gotta move. So how much exercise do we need? And what type?
Studies show there is not the standard “u-shaped curve” when it comes to exercise. In the vast majority of cases, more is better, albeit with diminishing returns past a certain point. Plain and simple, the negatives from too little far outweigh the problems from too much.
As you can see, the biggest reduction in mortality, about a 30 percent drop, is between sedentary individuals and those who exercise sixty minutes a week. However, the risk of death continues to fall with higher doses of exercise. People who report three and six weekly hours of exercise lower their risk of death by about another 10 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
People who don’t want to go to the gym act like figuring out the proper workout plan is a mystery on par with dark matter. Truth is, this is one area where there’s a clear answer that nearly all the studies agree on.
…engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week and weight train at least twice a week. Epidemiologists have calculated that this level of activity will reduce my risk of dying prematurely by 50 percent and lower my chances of getting heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers by roughly 30 to 50 percent.
So what’s a clear, simple way to get started given our natural disinclination towards moving for no reason?
Well, that 10,000 steps-a-day stuff you’ve probably heard about actually jives with the science. It’s also no coincidence that hunter-gatherer women walk about 5 miles a day — which works out to about 10,000 steps. Get a pedometer and make it a game to hit that number.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
George Sheehan once said, “Exercise is done against one’s wishes and maintained only because the alternative is worse.” We now know what to do… but how do we get ourselves to do it when it doesn’t come natural?
Well, for those of you who feel the gym has all the charm of the Zodiac Killer, there’s an answer…
So what gets our hunter-gatherer buddies moving? It comes down to two things: good reasons and socializing. And when you think about it, the treadmill is the exact opposite of that: it feels pointless and you’re alone. No surprise it doesn’t come natural to most of us.
Hunter-gatherers don’t like pointless effort either. The members of the Tarahumara tribe sometimes run fifty miles in what they call “rarájiparis.” Why? It’s a spiritual ceremony akin to prayer. They have a good reason to do it.
“Health” is vague, abstract and long term. For people not prone to exercise, there’s no immediate, visceral reason to do it. So try a sport. Learn a skill, like martial arts or dancing. Once there’s a goal, it’s not pointless. And it can even be this thing called “fun.” There needs to be a reward component. And for activities that are more abstract like going to the gym, pair it with something rewarding in the moment like audiobooks or podcasts.
And then there’s the second thing: socializing. We evolved to work in groups. We hunted together, foraged together, fought and played together — moved together. So don’t white knuckle exercise alone. Do something because you want to see your friends, but something that gets you moving in the process.
Sports, games, dancing or even just going for a walk all contain a social component that doesn’t rely on abstract motivation. Heck, you only hear the word “motivation” in regard to things you don’t want to do. So do something you do want to do, preferably something that involves others.
(For more on how to motivate yourself to exercise, click here.)
Okay, we have certainly moved our eyeballs enough for one day. Let’s round it all up, get it down to a simple formula, and learn the reason why this is more important than ever…
This is how to have a long, awesome life:
Daniel sums it up simply.
Make exercise necessary and fun. Do mostly cardio, but also some weights. Some is better than none. Keep it up as you age.
2020 was a wake up call in terms of threats to our health but it was a tragic irony that part of the solution was being confined to our home, apart from friends. Those limitations are almost over but the health lesson remains.
We fall prey to mismatch diseases because we have been “misliving.” I joke about too much exercise being a problem like having too much money, but in a way, it’s true. We are victims of our own success as a species. We have it so much easier compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and we should be grateful.
You could see ill health caused by lack of exercise as karmic retribution for our ingratitude, but it’s better if we just take it as a gentle reminder: to be grateful for our easier lives, for our modern conveniences. To remember to engage in activities with friends, to push ourselves to get out and enjoy more of the amazing things life has to offer.
Now that the pandemic is winding down, it’s time to stop misliving. As the research tells us, “Humans were meant to move.” So let’s make human a verb.
Enough reading. Time to get up. Get out there and human better.
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